I was killing time waiting for my daughter to meet me for dinner when I spotted the perfect leather jacket, adorning a headless mannequin in a fancy department store. The collar and lining were lambs wool, like a hunter’s jacket, but the styling, more moto. I still glance at the covers of fashion magazines when I’m in at the market, so I know that is an actual term; the moto jacket.
I wasn’t shopping for a jacket. Still, I wandered the racks, searching for it. There was only one left. It wasn’t even my size. I was pretty certain the mannequin was wearing my size, but I didn’t want to undress the mannequin. I didn’t want to call attention to myself.
I have undressed many mannequins in my time. I am not a good shopper. To ensure I don’t make a poor choice out of fatigue or frustration, when in doubt I buy what the mannequin is wearing. Give or take ten pounds and one pregnancy, I have been the same size since college. This does not mean I have the same body I had in college or that I should or can wear the same clothes.
Imagine a tube of toothpaste. Imagine all the different ways the paste in that tube can be squeezed and manipulated and moved around. I am that tube. Time and nature and gravity has moved and manipulated all the paste. There is not more paste; it’s just less attractively distributed. Long gone are the days of clingy, body revealing fabrics. But every middle-aged woman knows that lots of problems can be camouflaged with the right jacket.
But the price tag was a big number. Really big. Too big. I texted a photo of the jacket to my daughter before reluctantly returning it to the rack.
Seconds later she texted back: Wait there
Together we stripped the mannequin, which required unscrewing its plaster, mitten-like hands and tucking them into our armpits. I yanked off my grey sweatshirt and slid my arms into sleeves lined with cool, silky fabric, like a second, younger skin. I pulled the jacket over my shoulders, a Cinderella’s slipper of buttery leather.
My daughter attempted to play devil’s advocate because of the outrageous price tag, and because she is a law student and enjoys an argument, but ultimately she admitted it was a great jacket. Weakly, I justified the price by pointing out that no matter what else I was wearing, by topping it with this jacket, I would look “put together.”
“Well, you didn’t have to wear that,” my daughter said, critically eyeballing my careless ensemble, and I wondered when it was that we’d traded places.
My own mother does not shop at fancy department stores. This is partly my fault. Years ago I bought her an outfit from a fancy department store for her birthday, and when she tried to exchange it for size, they gave her a hard time because she didn’t have a receipt.
In fact, the salesperson reduced my mother to tears. I got in my car and drove forty minutes to rescue her, waving my credit card bill and demanding an apology—which she received—but my mother never stepped into a fancy store again. My mother, who is firmly middle-class, prefers to shop at the sort of place where you can buy three shirts for ten dollars. If I told my mother how much this jacket costs, she would have me committed.
I wonder how old my mother was when she decided she never deserved another nice thing? If I were to peer inside her closet right now, I can guarantee every item was bought on sale, at a discount store, with an additional 20% off coupon—unless it’s a gift, either from me or from one of her daughters-in-law, in which case it is never worn, because it is being saved for some imaginary future special event.
When my mother was my age, my father passed away. She was completely shattered, and it fell to me to dig through her closet for a dress she could wear to the funeral of her high school sweetheart, to whom she had been married for over thirty years. There was nothing. My mother didn’t own a single decent black or grey or navy dress. I’m no clotheshorse, but if I were required to dress appropriately for a funeral later this afternoon, I could pull something together.
Taking her shopping was out of the question. She was literally out of her mind with grief. Not raving or tearing her hair. We are quiet people. Instead she took to her bed, her eyes red-rimmed and hollow, gazing vacantly at nothing. I went to the mall alone and spent hours looking for the perfect dress that, like her wedding dress, would only be worn once.
Because what we wear on the outside might not always matter, but sometimes it definitely does. It can be the armor that protects our vulnerable interior when we are at our most fragile.
The dress I chose for my mother was a well-cut black crepe sheath with a white collar. It was simple and lovely and probably more expensive than anything in her closet. I gladly would’ve paid twice the price.
Together, my daughter and I tried on nearly every more reasonably priced leather jacket in the store. Most of them had tons of zippers and hardware and large asymmetrical collars. Most of them, she not so gently pointed out, made me look like an old lesbian biker.
We gave up and walked to dinner.
At the restaurant, we were seated next to a couple of very mature women, and during the meal my gaze kept drifting to them.
“You’re still thinking about that jacket,” my daughter said. She was right. I was wondering if I bought it, how long could I wear it? It wasn’t the sort of piece that would go out of style, but at what point would I look like an old fool?
This is a game I play all the time. What sort of old woman will I be? We all hope to be Helen Mirren, don’t we? The thing is, Helen Mirren started out as Helen Mirren. If I wasn’t a bombshell in my twenties, then it is ridiculous to think I will become one at sixty. The two women seated next to us were more likely candidates for the future me. They both had that frazzly hair that I’m certain is my destiny—but were pleasant looking and in fair shape.
In order for me to justify the cost of that jacket, I figured I’d need to wear it for fifteen years. What woman, fifteen years older than I am, would still look fabulous in that jacket? Jane Fonda? Deborah Harry? I was clutching at straws. The only thing I shared with those women was an X chromosome.
I imagined each of the Golden Girls wearing the jacket.
My daughter eyeballed me. “Maybe if you gained a little weight,” she said, “just in your face and neck, then you wouldn’t get so lost in those zippery jackets with all the hardware.”
She is too young to know that all the weight I gain from here on out will join the softly inflating tube around my belly. That nothing I do short of injections—and we’ve all seen the actual result of face filler, which is not youth, but Muppet—will round out my cheeks, or fill in my clavicle. That this is what aging is, and I am trying to do it as gracefully as possible. I have my dignity.
Then, for some reason, I thought of the writer Joan Didion. I’d seen her recently at a literary event in New York. She had become as shrunken as a teacup Chihuahua, so frail that she had to be literally carried to the stage. But she was still turned out. When she sat and read, her huge glasses covering a face as wrinkled as a peach pit, she was still indomitable, and gorgeous.
I did a Google search. Joan Didion is twenty-five years older than I am. And she would rock that jacket.
We, all of us, always, deserve nice things.
And I am wearing mine—right now.